Interview: Edith Hall
I love Edith Hall's short biography: "Edith Hall is a London University Academic who specialises in putting pleasure into the history, literature, theatre, myth and philosophy of ancient Greece and Rome and their continuing impact in the modern world."
It manages to convey not only her expertise but also her enthusiasm for her subject, and her passion for teaching others to appreciate the ideas and history that absorb her. (Also, from the spellings we know she's British.)
Given her biography, it's very fitting that Edith Hall's new book is Aristotle's Way: How Ancient Wisdom Can Change Your Life.
"Read Aristotle" was one of the elements in the extremely long subtitle for my book The Happiness Project, Or, Why I Spent a Year Trying to Sing in the Morning, Clean My Closets, Fight Right, Read Aristotle, and Generally Have More Fun. (I love long subtitles, plus, ever since childhood I'd wanted to write a book with an "Or" title.)
I couldn't wait to talk to Edith about happiness, habits, and productivity.
Gretchen: What’s a simple habit or activity that consistently makes you happier, healthier, more productive, or more creative?
Edith: Daily switching off all social media and walking my dog in the local woods for an hour. Weekly cooking a full roast dinner with lots of interesting vegetables on Sunday for family and friends. Insisting everybody switches off all social media while we eat together.
What’s something you know now about building healthy habits or happiness that you didn’t know when you were 18 years old?
Being very judicious about whose opinion I care about. Women are trained culturally to want to be liked by everyone. But that is impossible because sibling rivalry, transferred out to our entire peer group in the world, makes envy such a motor in human life.
There are some people whose opinion of you really, really matters. Building good long-term relationships is central to happiness, and it is essential to listen attentively to any complaints or criticisms from those whom I respect and want to live my life closely with. But there is a very large problem of envy and malice out there, which has become worse in the age of social media, and I, like many other people who try to do something creative with their lives, have suffered from a good deal of (what seem to me) unjustifiable attacks.
But Aristotle says that if you are seriously trying to be the best version of yourself, and never damage people knowingly, then people who criticise you are inevitably motivated by envy, so their opinion really doesn’t matter at all. This realisation is incredibly liberating!
You’ve done fascinating research. What has surprised or intrigued you—or your readers—most?
I was amazed when I first started reading ancient Greek and Roman philosophy when I was an undergraduate to discover that between about 400 BC and 300 AD there was a whole tradition of non-religious discussion of the right way to live, morality, and the best routes to contentment. The ideas not only of Aristotle but of Socrates and Plato, the Stoics and other philosophers, can be adopted by anybody today, regardless of their religious or cultural or ethnic background. What’s more, they really work!
When I talk to people of all ages about Aristotle’s recipe for deciding to live a happy life, they often write to me to say they can’t believe how modern and fresh and in tune with their own instinctive beliefs his method is.
Which habits are most important to you? (for health, for creativity, for productivity, for leisure, etc.)
Fronting any problems with my family and close friends very swiftly and not stopping until they are resolved. I can’t work at all when emotionally disturbed or worried about those I love.
Having a flight booked to go somewhere sunny soon when the dark November days draw in.
I am an early riser and get twice as much work done, of any kind, between the hours of 5:00 a.m. and 9:00 a.m. than at any other time of day. This does mean not going out late on weekday evenings, but it pays off tremendously. People need to find when their brains work best and then fit their daily schedules around that.
I have always kept a cat and write best with one purring beside me. I love the way animals don’t judge you and just provide perfect, uncomplicated companionship.
Have you ever managed to gain a challenging healthy habit—or to break an unhealthy habit? If so, how did you do it?
I struggled with my weight from childhood, as did my mother and sister. There was far too much instantly edible food in the fridge. After my pregnancies, when I ended up far heavier than I had ever been, I ditched all diets and just moved to only two meals a day, one of them light, and if I’m not hungry I don’t even eat those. But I don’t then obsess at all about what’s on the menu. I’ve been the same OK weight for years.
I like cooking meals from scratch and make big pans of vegetable soup with. I gave up snacking completely, and, just as Aristotle says about habits, what seemed like hard work at first just became an unconscious reflex. Even on autopilot I genuinely don’t like sweet things now, and find I think and write better on a fairly empty stomach.
The other habit was choosing hopelessly inappropriate men. In my late teens and twenties I dated people because they were handsome and exciting. This was not compatible with looking for a co-parent to raise the children I so badly wanted with! In the end I got lucky (or rather, more discerning) and found someone who is both stimulating and a great dad. But it took some very tough self-analysis to get there!
Would you describe yourself as an Upholder, a Questioner, a Rebel, or an Obliger?
Very definitely a Questioner. I did the quiz! But I think I am a reformed Rebel. As a young person I often did just do the opposite thing from what authority figures of the rules of systems dictated. I do think that personal autonomy is an important part of happiness: there are terrible figures about the depression that results from having a bad boss.
But I now don’t just rebel for the sake of it. I think hard about every rule and system, and often they are the way they are for extremely good reasons, like wearing a seat-belt in a car. As an Aristotelian, I am a ‘moral particularist’, which means that every single circumstance and every single situation will be different, and you have to exercise your judgement in every single case. Blanket acceptance of rules is not the most constructive approach.
Does anything tend to interfere with your ability to keep your healthy habits or your happiness? (e.g. travel, parties)
Travel is extremely disrupting to healthy eating. This is partly why I only eat two times a day and avoid the snacks. You can often buy better food at an airport/train station than what you are given on the plane/train. Bad weather and the mud it causes in winter is also really discouraging, as my main exercise is striding around in our lovely countryside, and I just don’t take well to indoor gyms etc.
Have you ever been hit by a lightning bolt, where you made a major change very suddenly, as a consequence of reading a book, a conversation with a friend, a milestone birthday, a health scare, etc.?
Several times! At 13 years old, when a priest was blaming the Roman soldiers who crucified Jesus of Nazareth at Easter, I lost my faith altogether. The priest seemed so unsympathetic to these ordinary men in an army to which they had probably been conscripted, having to do what their superior officers commanded and terrified of punishment themselves. It made me realise that life was incredibly complicated, morally speaking, and that religion wasn’t helping me, personally, to find the answers to the big questions.
The second was my 30th birthday in 1989 when I looked in the mirror and had to admit to myself that my first marriage wasn’t working since my then husband didn’t want a family. It took me a few months to pluck up the courage to go, but I did the night the Berlin Wall came down later that year. I suspect many other people took important decisions that night. The example of those brave East Germans scaling the concrete was so inspiring!
Is there a particular motto or saying that you’ve found very helpful?
“Onwards and upwards.” [Gretchen: How great! That's the signature sign-off line for my podcast, Happier with Gretchen Rubin.] There is also a modern Greek proverb I like, “You help me and I’ll help you and together we’ll climb the mountain.” But it sounds better in Greek, like a line from a song.
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